Printing machine operators are an important part of the production industry. They set up, operate, and maintain printing presses. Printing machine operators are most commonly employed by commercial print shops. The machines they use put words and designs on almost any kind of material including plastic, glass, and metal, and each machine must have an operator in order to function. Workers also monitor the presses, noting if problems arise such as jams and ink spots, and work quickly to correct the issue.
One of the most attractive aspects about working as a printing machine operator is on-the-job training. However, prospects will be best for those who obtain formal instruction in printing. Printing machine operators may be employed in various different settings that utilize printing machines, such as newspapers, magazines, as well as smaller print shops.
Printing machine operators are expected to find a moderate decrease in demand for their skills over the next few years, as technology advances and the need for multiple operators will diminish. However, jobs will become available for those who are proficient with the new computerized technology.
The basic salary for a printing machine operator depends on the area in which the work is located and the size and complexity of the printing press being operated. According to the Bureau of Labor and Statistics, median hourly wages in May 2008 were $15.46. Newspaper, periodical, book and directory publishers received an average hourly wage of $17.70, while those in the printing industry received $15.85.*
*According to the BLS, http://www.bls.gov/oco/
Job Description and Outlook
Printing machine operators clean rollers, load paper, and constantly watch the machines in order to fix jams. The duties will vary according to the type of press they operate – offset lithography, gravure, flexography, screen printing, letterpress, and digital. Plateless processes are also coming into general use. Copying, and duplicating, as well as manuscript and specialty printing, are usually done by in-house printing shops using a plateless press. Commercial printers are also increasing their use of this particular type of press for short-run jobs and variable data printing.
To prepare presses for printing, machine operators set up and adjust the printing plate, regulate pressure, ink the presses, load paper, and adjust the press to the paper size. Press operators make sure that paper and ink meet specifications, and adjust the margins and the ink flow to the inking rollers accordingly. Then, they feed the paper through the press cylinders and adjust feed and tension controls.
Printing machine operators may expect to find a moderate decline in employment through 2018, mainly because newer printing presses will require fewer operators. Printer speed and automation will also need fewer operators, especially in large shops such as those in the newspaper industry. However, job opportunities will still exist as current workers are expected to retire. The need for workers who are trained on computerized printing equipment and have knowledge of database management software will increase. Skilled press operators will have the best opportunities, along with those who complete postsecondary training programs.*
*According to the BLS, http://www.bls.gov/oco/
Training and Education Requirements
Many printing machine operators are trained on the job. However, some employers prefer that beginners complete a formal apprenticeship or postsecondary program prior to working.
New operators will begin by loading, unloading, and cleaning presses. Over time, and with proper training, they may become fully qualified to operate that type of press. Workers may also gain experience working with more than one kind of printing press if they wish.
Since technology is ever-changing, it is imperative that even experienced operators receive retraining and skill-updating. Plants that change from sheet-fed offset presses to digital presses will need to retrain their entire crew because the of the different skill requirements for these two presses.
Apprenticeships, although sometimes required, are becoming less prevalent. When they are offered, they include on-the-job instruction and related classroom training or correspondence school courses.
The best opportunities exist to those who have completed a formal postsecondary program. These are offered by technical and trade schools, community colleges, and universities. These courses provide theoretical and technical knowledge which are needed to operate advanced equipment. Some programs award an Associate degree for completing a two-year program. Courses in chemistry, electronics, color theory, and physics are also helpful.
As press operators gain experience, they may advance in pay and responsibility by working on more complex printing presses. Operators may advance to supervisors and become responsible for an entire press crew. They have also moved on to become cost estimators, sales representatives, and instructors of print-related courses.
Formal certifications are available for further advancement, but are not mandatory for employment. The three basic certifications include Basic Flexographer (Level 1), National Certification for Flexographic Press Operators, and Electronic Document Professional. These basic programs can be pursued further into five more advanced certifications.
The Association for Suppliers of Printing, Publishing and Converting Technologies (or more commonly, NPES) is a trade association of over 400 companies which manufacture and distribute equipment, systems, software, and supplies used in printing, publishing, and converting. The Foundation of Flexographic Technical Association (FFTA) is the leading technical society devoted exclusively to the flexographic printing industry.
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